Thursday, 19 May 2011

Astrologers, Cunning Men and Conjurors . . .

A chance remark by a neighbour yesterday suddenly brought into mind the once-famous Wizards of Carmarthenshire - the Harries family of Pantcoy, Cwrt-y-Cadno. The extent of their skills is uncertain. Some saw them as fraudsters - John Rowland, writing in 1889, insisted that Dr Harries was "a conjuror, fortune-teller and a quack-doctor". However, you have to remember that they lived in a very rural area - a very parochial rural area - and the people consulting them often had no better alternative. Medically, folk remedies were the norm and healers were respected - think of the Physicians of Myddfai - perhaps 15 or 20 miles distant and still spoken of with respect today. However, John Harries, "wizard", combined medicine with astrology (which must have seemed like magic to the ignorant) and a natural ability of second sight. The people who consulted him still believed in witches and faery folk like the Tylwyth Teg.

John Harries (1785 - 1839) and Henry Gwynne Harries (1821 - 1849) were father and son. John Harries did actually have a medical training and was presumably a qualified Surgeon, as he later became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh where he lectured. A tall man of some 6 feet 2 inches, he was described as having mutton chop whiskers, a wide mouth and straight nose, short dark hair and "blue wistful thinking eyes".

You would know him if you saw him for apparently his favourite attire was "a full-length heavy velvet cape, which he had lined with red flannel as he felt the cold. The cape was fastened on the left shoulder with a three inch solid silver buckle with the family Coat-of-Arms design incorporated above the buckle part. This he had made with a London silversmiths." However, he was acknowledged as being "a countrified man, in countrified attire with knee breeches, always cheerful, bright of eye and pleasant of speech."

He was greatly respected - especially by people in desperation - and indeed lunatics were brought him from as far away as Pembrokeshire and Radnorshire that he might heal them. Indeed, he did seem to have a power over them, although his treatment was somewhat unorthadox and involved taking the patient to the bank of a river or pool, whereupon he would fire an old flint revolver, with the effect that the startled patient would fall into the water. Herbs and blood-letting were also part of the cure. He had the power to charm away pain and it is no wonder that people assumed he was in league with the devil.

His son Henry was described as being 6 feet tall, with a pale face and long dark hair hanging in ringlets, and he had piercing grey-blue eyes and a very high narrow forehead. He had a weak chest and in consequence, a poor constitution.

Charmers in those days tended to have "specialities" which they were able to treat, such as mental problems, skin complaints (think - wart "cures" are still passed around to this day!), stopping bleeding, and healing wounds and sores. However, in addition John and Henry Harries could also predict events, find lost or stolen property, and combat witchcraft and "invoke benign spirits".

Of course, the very fact that the Harries menfolk had a library of books was an anathema to ordinary folk whose "library" would consist only of a copy of the Bible. It was generally believed that within the library at Pantcoy was a copy of a demonic book which was kept locked and chained and only opened - and then with great care should the demons and evil spirits escape - once a year, and then only out in the woods and in the presence of another wizard (a schoolmaster from Pencader apparently), and even THEN, the occasion would be accompanied by terrific storms of thunder and lightening up and down the Cothi valley . . .

John Harries was never bothered by people not paying their bills, for he had a neat way of billing which included the statement: "Unless the above amount is paid to me by . . . . . (date) adverse means will be resorted for the recovery." Hmmm . . . What it is to have a Reputation!

John Harries was once accused of murder, after he had told the police where the body of a missing local girl would be found (she had been murdered by her boyfriend). This case was passed to magistrates at Llandovery. They were modern-thinking men and thought they had an open and shut case, until Harries offered to demonstrate his powers of second sight as part of his defence by asking them to give the hour they came into the world and he in turn would provide the hour they would depart it. . . needless to say, they declined to pursue this line of questioning and Harries was released.

John Harries knew of the day of his death - by accident - on May 11th, and determined to stay in bed that day to avoid accident. However, there was a fire in the house of Pantcoy, and in trying to quench the fire, he slipped from the ladder he was on and died. Rumour has it that his coffin suddenly became lighter as it was being carried to the grave - this was, of course, the evil spirits who had claimed his soul at death, came back for his body!

His son was always in the shadow of his father, and whilst he possessed a few of his skills, never shone in them. However, it is said that John Harries passed on his skills o certain pupils, and one of his servants was said to be skilled in divining the future. Henry died from Consumption, aged only 28, on 16th June 1849. Sadly, something his father had no cure for . . .

This piece could not have been written without consulting an excellent and fascinating article by Richard C Allen, and published by the North American Journal of Welsh Studies in 2001.


  1. How fascinating. Fabulous photo too!

  2. Fascinating. Half of me would have liked to meet him and the other half would be far too scared!

  3. There are papers of Dr John's held at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and I am quite tempted to go and have a look at his horoscopes, notes etc, but being "fey", I am disinclined to do so in case I get "join up"!!!

  4. I can only imagine the dark power that the "doctor" held over his patients and neighbors! Such a "gift" might not be a blessing.

  5. Wow how interesting ... thanks for posting that hun. x

  6. P.S. Kath - the photo was an early morning one of the two topmost trees beyond my veg. plot at the top of the stable yard. I can get some quite atmospheric ones in the winter.

    MM - I think he scared people into being well again! Having said that, folk said how nice and kind he was, so perhaps he had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character!

    JE - me too.

    Fi - I think I am going to have a little explore over that way - Cwrt-y-Cadno and beyond . . .

  7. Super writting your blog. How fascinating. Fabulous photo too!

  8. John Harries' Book of Incantations (NLW 11117B) is being digitised at the National Library of Wales, and should be online in the next few months ...